How Gay-Friendly are Sri Lanka, Damascus, Seoul, Mysore, and Koh Kood?

A GLBT Perspective on the New York Times's "31 Places to Go in 2010"

photo by Andrew Collins

The New York Times Travel Section publishes an always intriguing "best places to go" round-up story each year. In 2010, they listed 31 destinations, from Sri Lanka to Istanbul.

For GLBT travelers, how does the Times list of 31 hot spots stack up? Personally, I'll go just about anywhere I can get to, gay-friendly or not. But some of these destinations won't specifically resonate with gay travelers, either because they have no discernible "scene" or they're in parts of the world with unwelcoming or even hostile attitudes toward gays and lesbians. Others on the list have actually developed quite lively gay scenes in recent years. Here's my admittedly quick-and-dirty take on each of the 31 destinations on the list, some impressions based on personal experience, others on what I've learned from other sources.

For each one, I've also included a link or two for more information on the local scene.

  • Sri Lanka: The Times's No. 1 pick is officially not very gay-friendly, but this small, beautiful island nation off the southern tip of India has an active GLBT community working hard to change laws and attitudes. Utopia-Asia's excellent guide on Sri Lanka lists a number of gay-friendly nightlife and lodging options, and a Gay Pride celebration is now held each June in the capital city of Colombo.
  • Patagonia Wine Country: Argentina is home to one of the gay capitals of Latin America, Buenos Aires, and the country's most famous wine region, Mendoza, is also popular with GLBT travelers. Patagonia is more remote and with no scene, per se, but it's a great choice for couples, wine lovers, and adventurers. Several companies targeting the GLBT market do Patagonia tours, including Kuyay Travel and BA Gay Travel.
  • Seoul: The Times notes that Seoul has become recently "glammed up" with hip cafes and nightlife, and indeed, this increasingly cosmo, design-minded city is rapidly developing a prolific, visible, and trendy gay scene. Seoul is a city to watch, in this regard. Utopia-Asia's guide to Seoul is extensive, and you can learn a bit more about South Korea's slowly thawing attitudes toward gay travelers at GlobalGayz' website.
  • Mysore: India's resplendent "City of Palaces" probably isn't super-high on the vacation list of many GLBT travelers, unless they happen to be yoga enthusiasts. Still, as several cities in India began holding Gay Pride celebrations recently, Mysore is also drawing increased interest from gays and lesbians, especially those with a spiritual bent. GlobalGayz has this gallery on Mysore, and Mysore is on the itinerary of a tour offered by Indjapink, a gay tour operator (Mumbai, another city on the Times list is also visited on these tours).
  • Copenhagen: Host of the World Outgames last year and one of Europe's most progressive, attractive, and gay-welcoming cities, Copenhagen is without question one of the best GLBT destinations on the list. Resources abound, including Copenhagen Gay Life's directory and the Patroc Gay Guide to Copenhagen.
  • Koh Kood: Included on the Times list as Thailand's "emerging new luxury outpost", this lush and remote island doesn't yet have much in the way of gay-specific accommodations. But you can bet that as the tourism infrastructure here continues to develop, so too will its GLBT popularity. Overall, Thailand is the most gay-friendly country in Asia, and you'll find tons of information on other parts of the country at Utopia Asia.
  • Damascus: Not surprisingly, given Syria's mostly Sunni Muslim population, Damascus is without a visible gay scene. That being said, there is reportedly a discreet but perhaps unexpectedly large GLBT community, with much of whatever scene there is concentrated upon the Al Jadid Hammam (a famous public bath). GlobalGayz provides a fascinating perspective on gay life in Syria, and Michael Luongo's book Gay Travels in the Muslim World is an excellent resource on the Middle East in general, in the words of gays and lesbians.

    This is the continued critique of an article in the New York Times, "The 31 Places to Go in 2010", which was published January 10, 2010.

    • Cesme: This stunningly situated Turkish hideaway on the Aegean coast is near Izmir (here's the Turkey Gay Guide's section on Izmir and the surrounding region), which has something of a quiet gay following. As an officially Muslim nation, Turkey doesn't actively promote gay tourism, but GLBT travelers are a steady presence along the Aegean coast and in the capital, Istanbul (also on the Times list). I wouldn't recommend Cesme for a particularly gay vacation, but as part of a trip throughout coastal Turkey, it's a lovely stop.
    • Antarctica: Whatever those fun stories you've heard about gay penguins, the world's most sparsely popular continent has no gay clubbing and Pride marches. Having now stated the obvious, I will point out that a number of luxury tour operators offer cruises to Antarctica, including gay outfitters and agencies like Alyson Adventures, the Pauer Group and Out and About Travel. In general, cruises to this part of the world draw a well-educated, upscale bunch - so while Antarctica will never be a gay hot spot, it's most definitely a cool part of the planet for an adventure with your partner or a group of friends.
    • Leipzig: Less noted among GLBT travelers than German cities like Berlin and Cologne, this largest city of Saxony, with a population of a half-million, has a noted music and arts scene (Wagner and Bach were born here). The city has a Gay Pride festival in mid-July that's steadily growing in popularity, and Leipzig claims a handful of queer clubs and welcoming accommodations - Patroc's Leipzig Gay Guide is a useful resource. It's also a good midway point if you're traveling between Berlin and another top gay destination in Europe, Prague.
    • Los Angeles: Included by The Times because many of its neighborhoods have blossomed with galleries and arty scenes of late, Los Angeles is one of the world's genuine gay capitals. The city's LA Gay Pride in early June is huge, and there's a vibrant GLBT scene in several areas, notably West Hollywood.
    • Shanghai: This fascinating, ultra-modern, sophisticated Chinese city has long been on my own list of up-and-coming gay destinations. As China's attitudes about gays and lesbians soften, this most Westernized of the country's cities continues to develop a cool gay nightlife scene. One terrific resource on GLBT Shanghai is the Utopia-Asia Shanghai Gay Guide. And, yes, if you haven't discerned by now, I'm a big fan of Utopia Asia for advice on gay travel throughout the continent.
    • Mumbai: Following the devastating terrorist attacks of November 2008, India's financial center and filmmaking hub (aka "Bollywood") has worked hard to restore itself and welcome back visitors. Despite its massiveness, its relatively progressive political landscape, and the fact that India decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, Mumbai is still by no means a gay mecca - you won't find such a place in this part of the world. But it's still fascinating, if chaotically so, and gay-oriented Purple Dragon Tours includes Mumbai on one of its popular India excursions. You'll also find information on the city's limited gay scene at Utopia Asia's online India gay guide.

      This is the continued critique of an article in the New York Times, "The 31 Places to Go in 2010", which was published January 10, 2010.

      • Minorca: Among Spain's sultry Balearic Islands, party-driven Ibiza and see-and-be-seen Majorca are already tremendously famous among GLBT revelers from throughout Europe and, increasingly, North America. Minorca? The Times cited this naturally stunning island as a "tranquil" alternative to its neighbors - indeed, the whole island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. BalearicsIslands.com has the details on Minorca's scant gay scene, but given Spain's overall warm embrace of gays and lesbians, you can rest assured that you'll encounter a welcoming vibe here. Minorca's a nice choice if you need a little break from Ibiza's and Majorca's wild times.
      • Costa Rica: I was a little surprised to see the darling of eco-tourism on the list of 31 Places to Go, if only because this friendly, affordable, and politically stable Central American nation has been earning plenty of ink in travel pubs for years. It earned Times recognition this year in large part because Costa Rica has recently developed into a hotspot for birding enthusiasts. How gay-friendly is Costa Rica? It's one of the top draws for GLBT travelers in Latin America, and a perfect getaway whether your idea of fun is lazing on the beach, dancing to salsa in San Jose's gay discos, or Zip-lining and eco-touring through rain forests and along monkey-inhabited beaches. Here's my gallery and gay guide to Quepos, one of Costa Rica's top GLBT resorts, as well as advice on planning a perfect gay-friendly itinerary throughout Costa Rica.
      • Marrakesh: An officially Muslim nation, Morocco is a bit less secular than Turkey and also a country where homosexuality is illegal. But as in Turkey, gay life is evident, if discreetly so, in resort destinations, including the ancient, alluring city of Marrakesh - GlobalGayz gives a good sense of Morocco from a gay point of view. Of course, if you've ever seen the hilariously campy "Morocco" episode of Absolutely Fabulous, you're already well aware that Marrakesh has quite a legacy among chic European bon vivants, gay and straight. (There have also long been rumors floating around about the sexual orientation of Morocco's King Mohammed VI.) Marrakesh has no openly gay scene, but you'll find some tips on GLBT travel here at UCityGuides.com's gay guide to Marrakesh.
      • Las Vegas: Thanks to the rough economy, Las Vegas has become one of America's great bargains (just as it had been before the explosion of high-end resorts and restaurants during the past decade). I think of Vegas as one of those cities with more of a gay scene than its reputation suggests, but definitely less of one than you'll find in other large Western cities, such as L.A., San Diego, and Phoenix. I've written some extensive articles on gay-friendly Las Vegas hotels and the Vegas Gay Bar Scene, and here's my gay gallery on Las Vegas. There's a lot going on in Sin City right now, and the city's Gay Pride Festival, held in late April, is becoming quite popular, too.
      • Bahia: The leading gay cities in Brazil are Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The nation's northeastern state of Bahia, notable for its African vibe and the amazing Carnival celebration in its largest city, Salvador, is considered by the Times to be Brazil's "white-hot destination." Salvador also has an increasingly more visible and dynamic gay scene - Grupo Gay da Bahia provides a comprehensive GLBT directory, and Salvador-Brazil.info has a helpful advice on the region's gay scene. Also, writer Joseph Schmitt penned a highly engaging article for respected gay-travel magazine Passport on attending Carnival in Salvador.
      • Istanbul: As noted earlier in my critique of Cesme, another Turkish pick on the Times list of 31 places, Istanbul runs somewhat counter to Turkey's Muslim culture in the sense that it has a significant gay scene and a relatively secular, progressive outlook on many social issues. With an amazing food scene, plenty of high-end hotels (many of them run by prominent international chains), and a number of gay bars, saunas, and other establishments, Istanbul makes for a first-rate gay vacation. And as the Times story points out, it's a "European Capital of Culture" for 2010. Excellent resources for gay and lesbian visitors to Istanbul include IstanbulGay.com, which is part of the an extensive Gay Travel Guide to Turkey; and the Istanbul Gay Guide on Nighttours.com.

        This is the continued critique of an article in the New York Times, "The 31 Places to Go in 2010", which was published January 10, 2010.

        • Shenzhen: What's the most fun gay travelers can have in Shenzhen? Hop a train or boat to nearby Hong Kong. Okay, this head-spinningly fast-growing city in China's Guandong Province isn't completely devoid of a gay scene - in fact, Utopia-Asia provides a relatively extensive gay guide to Shenzhen. But there are more compelling destinations in China for lesbians and gays, including Shanghai and Beijing. One of the nation's special economic zones, Shenzhen is a strangely enticing boom town, and many Westerners find themselves visiting on business and, increasingly, out of sheer curiosity. Oh, and to shop. Among the Times 31 Places, I'd rank this one near the bottom in terms of GLBT interest, but safety isn't an issue.
        • Macedonia: Gay acceptance continues to spread farther and farther east in Europe, into formerly rock-solid conservative places, including the ​successors states that made up Yugoslavia before it dissolved in the early '90s. The Balkan nation of Macedonia is by all accounts an up-and-comer tourism-wise - the Times article cites beautiful Lake Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage site, as the place to watch. Macedonia's capital city, Skopje, contains the lion's share of this small nation's gay scene. You can get a good sense of gay life in Macedonia at GlobalGayz, but specific GLBT travel information out there is highly elusive.
        • South Africa: By far the most gay-friendly country in Africa, and home to Cape Town, which is a genuinely progressive and lively gay hub, South Africa is another of the no-brainers on the list. Unquestionably, this is a fantastic destination for gays and lesbians. The smartest strategy for seeing multiple parts of the country is via an organized or custom tour - Savvy Navigator and Premier Tours and Safaris are a couple of very gay-friendly companies that can help you plan trips to Cape Town, the Cape Winelands, and the lavish safari camps of Kruger National Park. GaySouthAfrica.org is an excellent country-wide source of gay travel info, while in Cape Town you should check out such handy resources as GayCapeTown4u.com and GayCapeTown's Ultimate Gay Guide.
        • Breckenridge: Giving new meaning to the phrase "smokin' bowls," the nearly 2-mile-high Colorado ski town of Breckenridge legalized the personal possession of modest amounts of marijuana in 2009. That seems to be the main reason this swish but the low-key resort was included in the Times "31", which is not to say there aren't plenty of fine excuses for planning a trip here - the amazing skiing, posh (in a rustic kinda way) resorts, urbane restaurants, and modish shopping. That being said, other ski towns in the state have more of a gay following, such as Aspen, Telluride, and Vail, each of which has a well-attended gay ski week. GLBT visitors will find Breckenridge exceedingly welcoming, though - the owner of Breckenridge Ski Shop posted a note on this site last year welcoming gay ski and snowboarding fans to his business, and the Bunkhouse Lodge is a long-running Breckenridge accommodation for gay men.
        • Montenegro: The second state born of the former Yugoslavia to appear on the New York Times list borders the far-more gay-popular Croatia along the charmed Adriatic Sea. In terms of gay-friendliness, Montenegro has an awful reputation (see the dire warnings about Montenegro posted on GlobalGayz) - I'd put it pretty much at the bottom of this list. Local activists are trying to change things, as evidenced by articles on the country's nascent Montenegro Gay Portal, which is written in Serbian, but you can use Google Translate for an English version.
        • Vancouver Island: Rugged, wild, and consistently gay-friendly, Vancouver Island lies off British Columbia's west coast and is home to such GLBT-favored vacation spots as the provincial capital, Victoria; peaceful and groovy Salt Spring Island; and remote and stormy Tofino. The 12,500-square-mile island (it's a little bigger than Massachusetts) makes for a perfect getaway for adventurers and outdoorsy types, and Victoria offers just enough in the way of gay nightlife and sophisticated cafes and museums to satisfy fans of urban destinations. It's also easily reached from such gay meccas as Vancouver and Seattle. Useful resources for GLBT visitors to Vancouver Island include GLOSSI: Gays and Lesbians of Salt Spring Island and GayVan.com's Victoria Gay Guide.

          This is the continued critique of an article in the New York Times, "The 31 Places to Go in 2010", which was published January 10, 2010.

          • Colombia: Please, Colombian kidnappings and violent drug wars are so '90s. In truth, although the world's third-largest Spanish-speaking country (trailing just Spain and Mexico) still has a thriving illicit cocaine biz, this South American country that borders Panama and has coastline on both the Pacific and Caribbean has become relatively safe in recent years. Bogota has the thriving gay scene that you'd expect of a city with 7.3 million inhabitants, the colonial Caribbean resort city of Cartagena is developing an increasing GLBT following, and Medillin - the city most associated with Colombia's drug wars - is enjoying a notable renaissance. If I had to pick one country in Latin America on the verge of developing into a serious gay vacation spot, Colombia would be it (with Panama not too far behind) - one promising development is that the government granted full legal rights to gay couples in 2009. Vamos Colombia offers personalized GLBT tours of the country, and Guia Gay Colombia is an excellent Spanish-language gay guide to the country. For specifics on the gay scene in Bogota, try this article in Passport Magazine.
          • Kitzbuhel: The luxurious Austrian ski town of Kitzbuhel has no gay scene to speak of, although it's just over the Alps from Saalbach, which is host of EuroSki Pride; and 175 km from Solden, which also hosts a GLBT ski event. Still, as fashionable Austrian ski getaways go, this cloud-capped village is pretty dazzling. The New York Times article cites Kitzbuhel's emergence into a stellar dining destination - it has several Michelin-star restaurants, plus a slew of over-the-top hotels and spa resorts. Just bring your own date. There are no GLBT resources on the area, but Tourism Kitzbuhel is a handy spot for scoring general travel advice.
          • Gargano: The Times included this small peninsular region at roughly the top of Italy's heel, where it juts into the Adriatic Sea, as a less-crowded, more affordable, and largely undeveloped alternative to Amalfi and Cinque Terre. Indeed, Gargano's seaside towns of Peschici and Vieste have zero gay scene - but this does look like a happily scenic and solitary spot for a Mediterranean getaway. Italy is quite gay-welcoming for an almost entirely (as in roughly 90%) Catholic nation. Although no gay resources exist on Gargano, you'll find a nice online chapter on it and the nearby Tremiti Islands in Frommer's Italy.
          • Kuala Lumpur: Although sophisticated and vibrant, with a storied contemporary skyline and a fabulous food scene, Kuala Lampur is nonetheless capital of an officially Muslim country that continues to uphold British colonial laws criminalizing homosexuality. Malaysian tourism reps have told me off the record that gays and lesbians won't encounter hostile attitudes in big cities, especially in Kuala Lampur, which has plenty of high-end Western hotels and a pretty decent variety of gay bars. But officially, this is one part of the world that isn't actively courting GLBT business, and compared with Bangkok, Hong Kong, and even Shanghai, this modern city ranks well behind as a gay destination. Utopia Asia has a fine Gay Guide to Kuala Lumpur, and you'll find an accurate snapshot of Malaysian gay life at GlobalGayz.com
          • Nepal: Well, this one caught my eye - in fact, it partly inspired me to write this commentary on the New York Times 31 Places. The last entry on the Times list, Nepal was cited specifically as a gay destination for 2010. This by-all-accounts breathtakingly beautiful country in the Himalayas is roughly the size of North Carolina (but with three times the population). As the Times article notes, Nepal provided GLBT citizens equal rights in 2008, and "a tourist agency in Katmandu is promoting gay tourism." I wouldn't call Nepal the next Puerto Vallarta or Mykonos, but this otherwise rather conservative Hindu nation does appear to be a safe, friendly, and tolerant place to plan a vacation with a same-sex partner of a group of gay friends. The Utopia Asia Nepal Gay Guide lists plenty of resources and gay-friendly businesses, and you'll find more details on gay society in Nepal at GlobalGayz.com